Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Conservation according to IIC

So a second week of international conservation conferences has just concluded with the IIC (International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) 2014 Biennial Congress in Hong Kong wrapping up on Friday. And the first thing to comment on is that two solid weeks of conferencing has in the end gone in a flash and not been as exhausting as I thought it would be, helped by the very different nature of ICOM-CC and IIC conferences and the different locations (Melbourne and Hong Kong). I noted that 24 conservators from  around the world attended both.

450 conservators attended IIC with, by my reckoning, about 50% of them Chinese speaking. That meant for a quality of dialogue I have never been exposed to in terms of exploring east vs west approaches to conservation (and for some occasional word mis-conversions by the translators, the best of which unfortunately cannot be repeated online!).

Takeaways for me from the papers were:
  • the extent of the cross over between craft skills and conservation in Chinese conservation projects.
  • the extraordinary richness of early Chinese textiles (11th Century and earlier) excavated from Tang, Han and Ming dynasty tombs and the challenges of their conservation.
  • the challenges of climate change in subtropical climates, where mould and increasing pest activity are requiring greater vigilance in collection care.
A great social program with receptions organised every night at respectively the Museum of Coastal Defence, the Heritage Museum, the British Consulate and the Asia Society. The highlight was the conference dinner on the Jumbo Floating Restaurant complete with a dotting the eyes on the lion ceremony and face mask magicians. Like all good conferences, the receptions are a key part of the show, as not only do conservators like to drink (in moderation of course), but it is where invariably I find the most useful networking is achieved.

However, the big news for IIC coming out of the conference was twofold. Firstly, we managed through a panel session to get agreement on the Environmental Guidelines we had drafted at the ICOM-CC conference. These have now been formally declared as a joint IIC / ICOM-CC position on environmental conditions and without a doubt moves us forward in this complex area. The next stage is to build on this declaration to provide more specific details.

Secondly, and somewhat unexpectedly, IIC ended up signing a MOU with the Palace Museum in Beijing to cooperate on a range of initiatives including a training program. How this came about was that the Director of the Palace Museum, Dr Jixiang Shan, was invited to give the Forbes Prize lecture, which is the Congress' equivalent of the key note address.  So impressed was Dr Shan by IIC and the congress that he delayed his flight back to Beijing to work through with us how such a relationship would work.

Although it is very early days, fundamentally this means that the good will and professional exchange that has been established with our South East Asian colleagues over the last week now has a mechanism by which this can be built upon.

Genuinely exciting times for conservation!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Conservation according to ICOM-CC

I'm in the midst of a busy fortnight of conferencing, having just completed a week in Melbourne at the ICOM-CC Triennial Conference and am now heading to Hong Kong for a further week at the IIC Biennial Conference. The (conference) stars of these two international conservation organisations only align every 6 years for obvious reasons, and for the first time the governing bodies of each have tried to bring them into the same part of the world and to run them in successive weeks. Whether that really works I shall tell you in a week's time!

But I can report on the conservation world according to ICOM-CC or to give its full title, International Council for Museums Committee for Conservation. 650 conservators met in Melbourne with what appeared to be a good spread from around the world, except for Asia, which I hope will be rectified in Hong Kong. The format of ICOM-CC conferences is based around working groups (covering everything from paintings and metals to preventive conservation and education). So, after initial formalities, the week quickly broke up into concurrent sessions of the working groups.

What therefore works wonderfully for me as a self proclaimed generalist (though many years ago I do remember I was a furniture conservator) is the opportunity to graze across working groups, cherry picking issues of interest to me, whilst also trying to ensure I am broadly up to date with what the various conservation disciplines are engaged in.


My highlights were:

  • Two separate papers on Mark Rothko's Untitled (black on maroon) 1958. This was the story of how a painting famously graffiti tagged at the Tate in 2010 was conserved. The first paper was about the analysis of the graffiti paint and the damage it caused, a tour de force in technical examination and research, and the second about its physical removal, a tour de force in patience, not least because the conservator had a time lapse camera on her throughout the nine months that treatment took. 
  • The story of how English Heritage in the face of massive financial and staff cutbacks delivered a new archaeological and architectural elements store that has transformed the quality of storage and access, for about a third of the original budget. A classic example of how necessity can breed innovative thinking.
My broader takeaways were:
  • Our understanding of the cause and effects of mould and dust on objects is getting deeper.
  • Research into contemporary artists' methodologies continues to be a vital tool in informing treatments.
  • Assessing and prioritising the conservation needs of collections has now a number of practical and tested models.
Get hold of the conference preprints if you can, as they contain a vast amount of information on where conservation research and treatment in all their forms are at.

What I can also report is that we made some solid progress in advancing the environmental guidelines for museums debate, through a workshop the day before the conference and a plenary session during the conference. At the former I facilitated a series of discussions between Australian conservators and museum directors, and at the latter we developed a draft position statement on this complex issue. That statement now goes forward to the IIC conference for further debate, the aim being to establish a joint ICOM-CC / IIC position. I will blog further on the details at the end of next week.


Until then, it's Hong Kong here we come.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

War matters

Gazing out on the incomparable Austrian Tyrol landscape from Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden two weeks ago focused my mind on what was planned there. The Eagle's Nest is part of the former health resort that was converted into the "Fuhrersperrgebeit" or "Fuhrer's off-limits area", which in the end became a second seat of power alongside Berlin for Hitler and his cronies. The Eagle’s Nest itself was a 50th birthday present from Martin Bormann to Hitler in 1939, and remains the only relic of this large area in OberSalzburg, which centred around the Berghof, Hitler’s country retreat. The Berghof itself was bombed at the end of the war and then the ruins razed to the ground when the area was finally handed back to the state of Bavaria in 1952 to avoid it becoming a centre for neo-Nazi activity. Rather incongruously an Inter Continental Hotel now stands on the site of the Berghof. Up on the mountain above it, the Eagle’s Nest remains unscathed apart from missing chips of marble taken by allied troops as mementoes from the vast fireplace that Goering had given Hitler.


The US army were first to the site on 10th May 1945, 11 days after Hitler’s death in the Berlin bunker, and found amongst other things a collection of burnt paintings. Why they had been burnt and whether they were destined for Hitler’s proposed Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria is unclear. I blogged in March about the work of the Monuments Men in saving the looted art treasures of Europe, and I am looking forward to revisiting the issue again when I am part of a panel discussion at the Australian National Maritime Museum this Friday as part of the launch of the DVD of the film.

The War was of course a world one, and its tentacles reached all the way to Australia. We are currently working on the conservation of an air raid shelter sign at Sydney’s Town Hall station, reflecting how concerned the population was that Sydney would be bombed.


You don’t need to scratch the surface very hard to find more evidence - I came across another sign in a back corridor of the Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo only last week, which reads 'A.R.P' standing for Air Raid Precautions.


There is a great summary of how Sydney responded to the threat of invasion at http://scratchingsydneyssurface.wordpress.com/tag/town-hall-station


Thursday, August 21, 2014

World War One Museum Commemorations

Simon Jenkins made his name as a journalist, most recently with the Guardian, but in heritage circles we know him as a highly successful chairman of the English National Trust from 2008 until earlier this year, and also as a 21st century Pevsner with his great books on English architecture, most notably England's Thousand Best Churches.

So when Jenkins writes in the Guardian saying 1914: the Great War has become a nightly pornography of violence, it is worth reading. He goes onto say 'Britain's commemoration of the Great War has lost all sense of proportion. It has become a media theme park, an indigestible cross between Downton Abbey and a horror movie'.

Great stuff, and blogging this from the UK , there is certainly no escaping the commemorations (not to mention the 'stay calm and carry on' World War Two slogan which is in serious danger of being completely overused). So I was keen to see the highly acclaimed new World War One gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Firstly, whatever Jenkins may think, there is no escaping the public interest. I had a four hour wait for timed entry into the exhibition, and the Museum was heaving with people. 

Secondly, it is a great exhibition on a subject I thought I knew a lot about, but came away knowing a great deal more. For instance, I didn't know that prior to the War the UK was producing nearly 80% of the world 's battleships, or that when Kitchener called for volunteers in 1915, he hoped for 100,000 and got 750,000, or that the Germans very nearly won the war in early 1918.

Thirdly, it is well designed with clear graphics and text, with content often repeated on other panels in slightly different ways, so one does not feel one has to read everything (impossible anyway given the crowds).

And finally, it has some really great objects. As often happens the mundane ones are the most powerful, a particularly striking one being an infantry officer's jacket with the left arm blown off. Explore the rest of that great museum if you make it there, the jacket having a parallel with a backpack that a soldier placed over a home made bomb in Afghanistan three years ago, when he hurled himself and said backpack on the bomb to save his comrades. Amazingly he escaped with bruising as his flack jacket was inside. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, but his back pack did not fare so well.

November 2014 sees the opening of the World War One galleries at the Australian War Memorial. From what I hear, they will rival those in London.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Context and Cragside

A constant challenge for house museum interpretation is contextualising the building and its contents. We all know how stories bring places alive, and the reality is that some house museums have more going for them in this space than others.

Cragside near Morpeth in Northumberland is one such house, and a recent visit confirmed what a sterling job the National Trust are doing with it. And what a story it has to tell. The owner, Sir William, later 1st Lord, Armstrong (1810 - 1900) was one of those great Victorian industrialists and engineers who brought Britain to world pre-eminence by the end of the 19th century. Famous for an ability to so immerse himself in solving a problem that his colleagues would wonder if he was still alive (note to self: must remember to try this in boring meetings), he would emerge from his trance with another mechanical solution.

Generally this was applied, as far as I could see, to building battleships for the Japanese at his shipyard in Newcastle. But with the fortune this provided him with, he set to in a remote part of Northumberland to build Cragside with the architect Richard Norman Shaw.


There he included every gadget he could think of to invent, from running hot and cold water (unheard of at the time!), to an hydraulic lift, an automatic spit for meat in front of the fire (every home should have one) to electric light powered by a hydro-electric power plant, the first in the world.


He even convinced the Prince and Princess of Wales to come and stay to savour these delights, building onto the house to accommodate their visit including the most humongous fireplace known to man.